The Ultimate Guide to Building Collaboration in Construction

collaboration construction

What Collaboration in Construction Means

At its core, “collaboration in construction” simply means that teams are working together towards one project goal. Everyone can access the main plans and goals of a project at any time, without having to rely on gatekeepers or slog to faraway offices in order to get the information they need.

When collaboration is strong, team members pool their resources and knowledge and prioritize meeting shared goals dictated by the timeline and budget of the entire process rather than their own goals. This, of course, is the ideal way to conduct projects.

According to our report with FMI Corporation, “Trust Matters: The High Cost of Low Trust,” 43% of the highest trust construction firms make collaboration central to how they work across projects. But given the realities of today’s industry, how can construction firms effectively foster trust and collaboration?

Key Takeaways

  • Collaboration in construction requires teams to work together toward a common goal.
  • With collaborative construction, all stakeholders can access the main goals and plans at any time.
  • Around 43% of the highest trust construction firms place collaboration as a central goal when working on a project.
  • Collaboration can have challenges such as trouble with growing pains when getting used to a new system, changing job site and workplace culture, and the potential for higher upfront costs.
  • The benefits of collaboration may include fewer changes and rework, a higher likelihood of an on-time delivery, higher profits, fewer wasted materials, and other important positives.
  • Successful collaboration in construction builds trust, is seamless, is inclusive, defines clear roles and responsibilities, and prioritizes high-quality communication.
  • Emphasizing collaborative communication between the key players in the design and preconstruction phases of a project has a positive impact on long-term results.
  • Developing a more collaborative culture is possible by changing project delivery methods, starting with collaboration with the original contract, embracing diversity, using collaboration tools, encouraging accountability, and focusing on human interaction.
  • Trust and collaboration go hand-in-hand. High-trust firms are half as likely to have problems linked to slow data exchanges and twice as confident about meeting their budgets and project schedules.

Challenges of Collaboration in Construction

Traditionally, construction is a fragmented industry. It’s not that teams are choosing to not work cohesively. A lot of the obstacles of collaboration have to do with the flawed system itself.

Construction is a highly competitive industry and each stakeholder is jockeying for that little piece of the pie. Team members are frequently more interested in meeting short-term individual goals, rather than the project’s long-term end goal.

The large majority of contracts, especially if teams are working from traditional delivery methods like the design-bid-build method, define how to work on individual segments of the job, but don’t showcase how it all ties together. This gives stakeholders different and often narrow perspectives that foster adversarial solutions.

As Electrical Contractor points out, “Traditionally, construction projects have been built in an adversarial environment. Each member of the construction team is forced to compete with the others to earn a reasonable profit; delays, conflicts, and disputes are common.”

Moreover, “Progress is hampered by poor coordination between trades, incomplete drawings and specifications, and underfunding by the owner that slows cash flow and causes further conflict and delay. Subcontractors are seldom treated as equal partners in the process, and punitive contract clauses reduce trust between team members.”

Inequality, incompleteness, poor communication, and litigation seldom lead to great partnerships. (Actually, it’s safe to say they never do.) Yet many companies suffer through the status quo because they are intimidated by some of the side effects of shaking up the system and truly committing to collaboration and construction.

Some of the common challenges of collaboration include:

  • Overcoming the obstacles and growing pains associated with getting started in a new system
  • Changing workplace and job site culture, which typically meets new processes with initial resistance
  • Potentially higher costs upfront, although collaboration efforts typically lead to lower costs in the long run

The real question becomes: are you really willing to lose time, money, and workforce buy-in for the rest of your company’s life, simply because instituting change is difficult?

… Obviously, that was a rhetorical question.

In case you need a little more motivation, let’s look at the main benefits you can expect from enhancing collaboration to increase your enthusiasm.

Top Benefits of Collaboration in Construction

Say for instance that you were writing a collaborative paper, and you gave each team member a separate section to cover blindly without any indication of what the others would cover–well, let’s just say that paper would be a mess. Most definitely, it would require extensive editing and reworking, probably just to pull off a passing grade. Wouldn’t it be better to give everyone the same outline upfront and stay aligned through completion?

Fostering collaboration and construction can be a lot like handing out that outline. By giving everyone a clear task list, and making it obvious how those tasks contribute to the whole–as well as what other people are doing to contribute to the whole–you create an appreciation for and reliance on other departments, contractors, and stakeholders rather than enmity.

As a result, this leads to:

  • Fewer changes and rework
  • On-time project delivery
  • Projects that stay on budget
  • Higher profits
  • Less wasted materials, money, and manpower
  • Happier owners and other project stakeholders
  • Better brand reputation
  • More long-term business and referrals

Studies also show that collaboration leverages similarities for better cooperation, improves the quality of the project overall, and increases knowledge sharing among teams.

So, what do you really have to lose?

What Does Successful Collaboration Look Like in Construction?

Successful collaboration is characterized by streamlined workflows, in which everyone knows their role, knows who to go to get the information they need (i.e., knows how to communicate properly), and feels safe completing their duties and allowing others to finish theirs.

More specifically, collaborative construction does the following:

It Builds Trust

Trust is the foundation of good collaboration. In its absence, individuals and departments tend to prioritize their own tasks and goals, often at the expense of others. As we’ve explained before, this kind of trust gap is one of the most common causes of cost overrun.

It’s Easy

Collaboration should not be a hurdle or extraneous from regular job duties; if it’s hard, it won’t happen. In contrast, successful collaboration is easy. It allows team members to collaborate at the same time, intuitively. Seamless collaborative construction is usually the result of a smart application of tools and approaches, again discussed below.

It Is Inclusive

Real collaboration should be built on inclusivity. Plenty of research and thought leadership today shows that inclusivity is far and away a better strategy for growth than exclusivity, which often leads to stagnation. Usually, this is referring to diversity in terms of background, ethnicity, age, and experience. However, inclusivity is also essential when it comes to access to information. When information is tightly controlled, no one is well-served.

It Depends on Clear Roles and Responsibilities

In addition to bridging all stakeholders in, for collaboration to be a success, there needs to be clear roles and responsibilities. Everyone should know which piece of the pie they are responsible for, and workflows should be set up to where each additional person involved knows the next chain of command.

It Prioritizes High-Quality Communication

It’s important to understand that communication is essential for collaboration. According to an Autodesk and FMI report, “Almost half of all rework is due to poor communication among project stakeholders, and poor project information.”

Intelligent, successful construction firms avoid this by setting up cloud-based, easily accessible systems that make it easy to upload and download documents, view them in real-time, mark them up, ask and answer questions, request information, interact with the system off of WiFi and in remote environments, and more. At all steps of the way, communication must be prioritized.

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Collaboration between design and estimating is key

According to both Mortenson and McCarthy, one of the largest process changes they’ve seen in recent years is an emphasis on collaboration between key players during the preconstruction phase, especially when it comes to the relationship between design and preconstruction planning.

“We’re experiencing an evolution of design integration,” said Angeline Gleason, Director of Preconstruction at McCarthy. “Now, architects and structural engineers are working side by side with the general contractor. There are increasingly more design-build projects and a renewed push to align design with estimating and target budgets.”

Doug Heinrich, Estimating Director at Mortenson, echoed this experience. “Ten years ago, we transitioned from preconstruction managers (which were largely estimators) to design phase managers,” he said. “Now, our project managers, estimators, and architects all work together to get a more well-rounded viewpoint.”

When all of these roles feel equally heard during preconstruction planning, it also has an impact on long-term results. Our report found that employees of firms where trust and collaboration are highest are much more likely to go above and beyond when it comes to helping each other, with 49% routinely exceeding expectations in their work. These organizations foster a more positive working culture that will, in turn, deliver better results for the business.

Developing concrete tactics to foster collaboration and trust

Even with a clear understanding of how critical internal trust is to long-term organizational success, it can be difficult to nail down exactly how to foster it.

“We’re constantly working to gain alignment between business development, preconstruction, and operations,” said Angeline.

“We want everyone to have an idea of how their partners fit in the big picture of a project's lifecycle.”

Angeline brought up the role of education in helping promote future collaboration within the business.

“With a young workforce replacing seasoned professionals, it’s imperative that we develop our new preconstruction generation as quickly as possible. One strategy is to cross-train by cycling individuals through the various phases of a project—from pursuit to estimating to design management to construction,” she said. “This encourages teamwork and a better understanding of a project’s lifecycle to help prepare preconstruction professionals to develop a successful plan. It’s difficult to plan construction when you haven’t been in the field managing construction, and it’s difficult to construct/build when you don’t understand the plan or how to develop one.”

Doug mentioned the importance of looping in stakeholders early, especially when they’re scattered across different offices and locations.

“My biggest piece of advice is to get everyone involved in the conversation as soon as possible, show them the value, and get buy-in,” said Doug.

“Trust, communication, and collaboration: it sounds cliché, but it works.”

How to Start Building a More Collaborative Culture

Of course, just knowing the benefits of collaboration won’t bring you any closer to actually improving cohesion. If you want that collaborative culture, you have to take action; go out and get it.

Below, we’ll discuss some of the best practices and strategies for building (and maintaining) a collaborative construction culture.

Evaluate Your Project Delivery Methods

If you’re an owner and you're using traditional construction delivery methods like design-bid-build, it could be holding back your project team from collaborating. Traditional delivery methods are often narrowly focused on individual roles and scopes and it can tear teams apart by putting everyone on separate paths toward their own goals rather than working together.

On the other hand, modern methods such as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) paired with Lean Construction–which take the bird’s-eye view of any project–can provide much better results. By ingraining collaboration early on in the project in a formal process, it’s more likely to be continued throughout completion.

Embrace Diversity

You will have a difficult time indeed creating collaboration in construction if you do not recognize and embrace diversity. That means understanding that your team is composed of diverse genders and backgrounds, multicultural and multilingual populations, and those who adhere to alternative identities and lifestyle choices.

Don’t forget that simply hiring diverse personnel is not the same as including them. If you want to build a collaborative workplace that leverages the knowledge and abilities of every worker, you have to give each and every person a voice. Particularly, if you’re embracing multicultural teams where English might not be everyone’s native tongue, ensure you provide them with the right platforms and tools that eases language barriers.

Use Collaboration Tools

Transmitting information between contractors, designers, suppliers and stakeholders is risky business. It also leaves lots of room for gaps in understanding and data loss. If you want to reduce those gaps and foster collaboration in construction, it’s important to take measured steps towards that goal, which requires usage of the right tools.

Building information modeling (BIM) is just such a tool to start collaboration off on the right foot starting in the design phase. Through the creation of 3D, time-sensitive plans that incorporate tasks and duties of all departments, you can reduce the perception of siloed activities and teams and increase cohesiveness toward the end goal. This offers more opportunity for integration, and by employing field collaboration software as well, gives everyone access to the same information at the same time.

Encourage Accountability Through Feedback

Collaboration in construction is all about accountability. Communication should be transparent, actively pushing and pulling for feedback from your team. If you don’t encourage active dialogue, you won’t get it. That’s not the same as not having opposition or bruised feelings, however–they’ll still come out, just in a less productive way. By asking for feedback, you can circumvent this and keep momentum positive.

Get Human

At the end of the day, the construction industry is all about human beings. If you can get people to want to work together, collaboration will build itself. Institute in-person team check-ups regularly, as well as trainings and workshops.

Show appreciation and reward initiative. Social activities never hurt either, as they encourage both team bonding and cohesiveness. People who want to spend time together also want to work together, plain and simple.

Start Building Seamless Collaboration in Construction Today

Ready to learn more about seamless collaboration and institute a plan that works for your company today?

Download the Digital Builder's Guide to Construction Field Collaboration for handy tips, tricks, and ideas that will unify your teams, streamline your project, and keep your stakeholders happy now and in the future.

Why trust and collaboration matter

Sure, trust and collaboration sound nice—but they can often feel intangible when it comes to producing hard business results. What’s the concrete payoff of becoming a high-trust construction organization?

According to the previously mentioned report, companies that build high levels of trust can save millions of dollars annually from benefits that include lower turnover rates, fewer missed schedules, and more repeat business.

Specifically, we found that high trust firms are:

  • Half as likely to encounter the problems that commonly arise if data isn’t shared fast enough. Eighteen percent say this rarely or never happens.
  • Twice as confident about meeting project schedules and budgets.
  • The most enthusiastic about taking on repeat work with collaborators across the construction ecosystem.

Interested in learning more about the role of trust in construction success? You can download the full report here.


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Special thanks to Contributing Author: McKenzie Gregory, Content Marketing Manager, Autodesk Construction Solutions

Grace Ellis

As Manager of Content Marketing Strategy at Autodesk and Editor in Chief of the Digital Builder Blog, Grace has nearly 15 years of experience creating world-class content for technology firms. She has been working within the construction technology space for the last 6+ years and is passionate about empowering industry professionals with cutting-edge tools and leading strategies that improve the quality of their jobs and lives.